By Ed Runyan
When Trumbull County Democratic Party Central Committee members meet July 26 to select a replacement for Commissioner Paul Heltzel, the vote will take place in public, the Ohio Democratic Party chairman says.
But the Trumbull party chairman, Dan Polivka, said being told by state party leaders Tuesday to switch the party’s manner of voting is “a bunch of bull” and he’s still “reviewing all options.”
Eleven people have submitted letters expressing their interest in the position, which is vacant because of Heltzel’s death June 30.
“I don’t agree with that. We have it in our bylaws for secret ballots, so that voters are able to vote and they will not be intimidated,” Polivka said. “But I’m reviewing all options and looking at it. I personally feel I think it’s a bunch of bull. I think it [private voting] should be an option. I feel it’s the fairest Democratic way, whether it’s an endorsement or filling a vacancy.”
Chris Redfern, Ohio Democratic Party chairman, said Tuesday that two state party officials spoke with Polivka. Redfern said he’s confident the Trumbull County leadership will change its nearly 35-year-old policy of voting in secret.
For endorsements and decisions about who will fill vacant elected positions, the central committee uses a ballot box at its public meetings, and the voter’s identity is kept secret. It’s like the voting experience of an average American but not like the voting done by elected officials, such as township trustees.
Redfern said the argument Polivka makes is similar to what the state party has heard from about two dozen county party leaders in recent months across Ohio.
But the only facts that matter to Redfern are that the Democratic National Committee forbids secret ballots, and Ohio’s attorney general has called them illegal.
“The Democratic National Committee is the governing body,” Redfern said by phone Tuesday. “The DNC strictly forbids secret ballots. Simply stated, it won’t happen.”
Also, the Ohio attorney general in 2011 wrote an opinion stating that secret ballots “do not meet the requirements of a public meeting,” he added.
“We have notified all county chairman repeatedly over the past several years that county parties are not independent. The DNC strictly forbids secret ballots when filling a vacancy. It’s a public body, and it’s members are public officials,” he said of county Democratic parties.
If a party were to cast a private vote to fill a position such as county commissioner, the results of that vote could be challenged by one of the individuals who didn’t receive the nomination, Redfern noted.
Redfern said two party officials, including Bill DeMora, Ohio Democratic Party secretary and director of county operations, spoke with Polivka on Tuesday.
“Dan’s a good friend and a good supporter of the party,” Redfern said. “We view the issue as settled.” If any central committee member can’t live with public voting, “he or she should resign,” Redfern said.
Polivka has said the party has used secret ballots to appoint replacements for vacant elected positions and endorsements since about 1980, when Fred Alberini had been party chairman.
Polivka said the party switched to secret ballots “because of retribution.” He said when public voting occurred in the past, “They replaced you. If you didn’t go the chairman’s or secretary’s way, they got rid of you.”
The Mahoning County Democratic Party went through a similar issue a month ago when it elected Dave Betras as chairman and Ron Masullo as vice chairman, which violated the DNC’s mandate that the county party’s top two leaders must be of opposite gender.
The Mahoning County Democratic Party later revised its constitution to create a new position within the party – secretary/vice chairperson – and Joyce Kale-Pesta, county board of elections director, assumed the position.
The party also changed its constitution to eliminate secret ballots at the same time, also because of demands by the state party.
Alberini, former Trumbull County Democratic Party chairman, said in April 2013 that the change from public to private voting allowed him to become a party leader after years of iron-fisted leadership before him.
Heltzel, a Democrat whose uncle, William J. “Doc” Timmins Jr., was a longtime Trumbull County Democratic Party chairman starting in the 1960s, also was asked in April 2013 about public voting, and he said he “would lean” the way of having open voting, saying, “It’s appropriate for members of the party to know how their representatives voted” since they are elected to the position.
Heltzel also said the “friction” that can arise as a result of having his or her voting position known “is a necessary part of the process.”